Friday, November 19, 2010

The population density school of lit crit

One of my favourite writers is Kazuo Ishiguro.

For a while after I read The Remains of the Day, I wondered what it was that gave a Japanese-born writer such a deep, sympathetic insight into the character of his all-too-English narrator. Okay, so Ishiguro is English by naturalisation, but still - his understanding of Stevens' mentality is infinitely more insightful than that of almost anyone I know. In just two generations, it seems, the "servant" mindset has been, pretty much, completely erased from British culture.

When I read An Artist of the Floating World - one of my favourite books - the mystery began to clear. Because that story is almost exactly the same, but for the teensy details that it's set in postwar Japan, rather than postwar England, and deals with a distinguished artist and patriarch, rather than a never-married butler. Those differences don't really amount to the proverbial hill of beans, compared with the similarities.

Why, I mused, did English society have so much in common with Japanese? On the face of it, it would be hard to identify two cultures that have had less opportunity to influence one another.

The answer I came up with can be boiled down to one word: population. Both Japan and England are densely populated, and they're both islands (well, technically England shares its island with a couple of other small nations, but let's gloss over that for the moment). That fact means that in both countries, it's very hard to forget that land (room, space) is a very limited commodity.

And that, I hypothesised, gave rise to two cultures in which "manners" play a very important role. You know that you're always going to be living very closely with other people. Therefore, it makes sense to follow fairly rigid social rules, even if those rules are not enforced.

Compare and contrast with grossly underpopulated countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Wide open spaces foster the illusion of personal independence and autonomy, the belief that the individual is somehow sovereign and has the "right" (whatever the heck that means) to ignore what others think.

My theory is that if you could come up with a way of quantifying the degree to which "manners" and "formality" are valued in a society, you could then plot that value on a graph against population density, and it would show that the more people are crammed into a limited space, the more likely they are to understand the need to get along with each other.

Granted, there's plenty of counter-examples. Big-city-dwellers, from Paris to Los Angeles, are proverbially rude and unsympathetic. But they are rude, principally, to outsiders - that is, to people who are not familiar with the city's protocols. People born and raised in the city seldom make that complaint, because they understand the reasons for city manners and values.

Values such as "keeping a stiff upper lip". When you live in a community of a thousand people, and you know by sight just about everyone you meet from day to day, it makes sense to share your feelings and support one another. When you live in a city of a million, it's a different story. No-one wants to go through every day, getting drawn into the lives of another random selection of strangers who happen to be going through rough times today. Hence it's important that people learn not to show their feelings in public, out of consideration for others.

And these are the sorts of values that Ishiguro's protagonists cling to, failing to realise that the societies around them no longer understand this need. The war has mixed everything up, and now they find themselves surrounded by people from different backgrounds who no longer understand how the old ways came about, and consequently have no respect for them.

It's a haunting and tragic story, both times. Ishiguro conveys sadness and regret like no other writer I know.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your analysis. I comprehend a bit better now. -S